Comparing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience And King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail

1066 words - 4 pages

Comparing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail

The two essays, "Civil Disobedience," by Henry David Thoreau, and "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," by Martin Luther King, Jr., effectively illustrate the authors' opinions of justice. Each author has his main point; Thoreau, in dealing with justice as it relates to government, asks for "not at once no government, but at once a better government. King contends that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Both essays offer a complete argument for justice, but, given the conditions, King's essay remains more effective, in that its persuasive techniques have more practical application. Both essays extensively implement both emotional and ethical appeal to give their respective ideas validity.

One persuasive technique that each author implements to support his ideas emotionally is the use of biblical allusion. However, in comparison, King's use is stronger in that the tone of his allusions is more appealing to the reader. King's allusions cause the reader to want take action against injustice, whereas Thoreau's are darker -- more likely to make the reader want to submit to and accept the injustices portrayed. For example, King, in his first biblical allusion, manages to draw glory into his struggle by comparing himself with the Apostle Paul, feeling "compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town," just as Paul "left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city in the Graeco-Roman world.. . ." This stirs admiration in the reader for King and adds relevance to his struggle. Later King discusses the history of his style of civil disobedience by relating the tale of "Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire." This accomplishes much the same thing as his previous allusion, with the difference that it is beneficial more for his cause than for the man personally. The biblical allusions Thoreau chooses to use are another matter entirely. They support his essay in a negative way. Instead of instilling a sense of pride and hope in the reader, such as King's, they simply illustrate some things that are wrong with society. Doubtless this was Thoreau's intent, and they work better with the tone of his piece, but the simple fact is that King's positive illusions work better than Thoreau's negative allusions on an emotional level. One example of a biblical allusion that Thoreau uses is in reference to legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders: ". . ..serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God." Later Thoreau uses another: "I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, -...

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